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Primary Secondary Genealogy Sources

There are two types of sources used in genealogical research: primary and secondary. Primary sources are documents and records that were created at or around the time that an event, such as a birth, death, or marriage, occurred. Someone with direct and personal knowledge of the event wrote these documents and records. They may include vital records, such as certificates of births, deaths, or marriages, family bibles, military records, census information, naturalization records, and more. Because they are considered to be highly accurate, primary sources are preferred when obtaining and citing genealogical information.

Secondary sources are documents and records that were not created at the time that an even occurred. They may include old letters, books, oral interviews, and vital records for events other than that in which they were written for. Secondary sources are often provided by someone recollecting events of the past, and may not always be completely accurate.

Some sources may be considered either primary or secondary, depending on certain factors. For example, a family bible is only a primary source if events were recorded at or around the times that they actually occurred. A family bible obtained in the 1800’s that lists birth dates, or other events, from the 1700’s is a secondary source. A birth date found on a death certificate is also a secondary source. However, the death date listed on the death certificate is a primary source.

Both primary and secondary sources can be found in a variety of places. You may find some records, such as a family bible or old letters, in the possession of a relative. Official records, such as vital records, military records, and naturalization records, can be found in repositories such as city archives, libraries, or courthouses. Many records can also be found online, either for free or for a fee. Compiled books and genealogies may be found at historical societies, genealogical libraries, genealogical societies, or museums.

No matter where you obtain your information from, it is always important to thoroughly document your source. Source citations not only add credibility to your genealogical research, but it also allows you to go back and look at a record again in the future. You don’t have to write formal citations, unless you plan to publish your genealogy one day. Just make sure that you provide enough information that will enable you, or someone else, to go back and retrieve the document again.